In January of 2018, I reached out to the head of a local CEO group and inquired about joining.
After a one-on-one phone call to learn more about me and my business goals, he invited me to their next session. The group met for a full day each month. Half the day was spent discussing a specific topic, the rest of the time was spent helping each other with individual issues. I quietly observed the morning session. At the lunch break, as we sat around the table together, the group leader asked me to share my story and more about my business so the other members could get to know me better. Then, he asked, "Do you have any questions for us?" I looked at them all, took a deep breath, and said,
"Can I call out the elephant in the room? I'm the only woman here. You all are clearly very close and this is a private formum where you can be truly honest about what's going on in your personal and professional lives. So, I have to ask, do you even want me here? Because I would understand if you wouldn't, given all that's going on in the world today."
I realize that was overly direct, but I wanted to see their initial reactions. Some looked down and away, others looked right at me with a blank face, and a few clearly had a twinkle of a smile in their eyes, laughing at the directness of my question. After what seemed like a really long pause (to me!), one said something to the effect of, "Actually, I'd like to have more women in the group. We need your perspective. Both from your HR and recruiting expertise and from the female point of view." At which point, a few others nodded and agreed. I then asked the follow-up question:
"Why aren't there any women currently in the group? Have you ever had any?"
This response was a little bit disheartening. They explained there had been two women in the group previously, but both of their businesses had ultimately failed and they had to quit the group. Not the most reassuring response. But, at the same time, entrepreneurship is hard and many businesses do fail. Plus, they were honest and pointed out there had been several male CEOs who had failed and left the group too. Running a company isn't easy. That's why you join a CEO group - to help you feel less isolated and to try to reduce the risk of failure by accessing additional persepctives that challenge you to make more informed business decisions. However, it doesn't guarantee to make you successful.
I went home that night and told my husband I guessed they likely wouldn't want me and that I could understand why.
And then, something wonderful happened...
I started to get individiual emails from the CEOs in the group. Each one shared why I should join. They were personal and sincere. It made me really happy. Why? I have lots of amazing female colleagues. I'm talking insanely successful professional women who I adore and respect. But, I don't have many who have bootstrapped their businesses to the size of mine. Which means, they can't really offer advice or guidance the way other CEOs who are at the same level as me can. The reality is, there are more male CEOs I can relate to at this stage in my business then female ones. I told the group leader this was the one thing I was most drawn to about the group. And for that reason, I joined.
A year later...
Those meetings were instrumental in taking my business to the next level. Company revenues grew by 50 percent. I learned so much. I had smart people to bounce ideas off of. I was introduced to some new resources and key networking contacts. But honestly, the most important thing this group gave me was the confidence to push the business to the next level. These guys made me feel capable. They showed me I wasn't alone and that I didn't need to be perfect. This particular group of male CEOs was much more comfortable with competition and failure than I was. Listening to them work through their own business challenges helped me be less emotional and hard on myself. They never treated me like a woman, they treated me like a peer. And for that, I am truly grateful.
So, when I see the statistic that came out this week that says 60 percent of men are avoiding mentoring women due to the #MeToo movement, I am sad.
I want men and women to find a way to work together. This movement wasn't meant to build a divide between us. It was meant to help us work better together. We have so much to learn from one another. While I wish I had some suggestions to fix it, all I can offer is this story in hopes it inspires men out there to find a way to mentor women who need it.